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Hide and Seek
By FERN MICHAELS
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Fern Michaels
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIf you had known the seven American women of the Sisterhood of Revenge in their other life, the women sunning themselves might appear completely familiar. But upon a second look, you might turn to your companions and say, "No, it's not the American Vigilantes; it's not the Sisterhood. These women have a serenity, a certain jocularity about them. Would vigilantes on the run be painting their toenails and lathering each other with suntan lotion? No, no, these gals must be rich Americans on holiday. The American Vigilantes are somewhere else, playing hide and seek with the authorities, waiting to strike again.... Who knows where?"
It was a glorious day with golden sunshine and balmy breezes. At first glance it looked like a luncheon party of chattering young women sitting poolside, sipping fruity drinks with little umbrellas. From time to time the women stopped talking just long enough to rub more suntan lotion on as they waited for a lunch none of them would eat.
From their perch high on the mountain, their eyes were on the sparkling Mediterranean where District Attorney Jack Emery and martial arts guru Harry Wong, mere dots on the water, were tussling with a catamaran.
Kathryn Lucas, former long-distance truck driver, sat up and wrapped her arms around her knees. "I still can't believe there's a price on our heads. We're wanted fugitives back home. Every bounty hunter in the world will be coming after us one of these days, and here we sit relaxing at the pool."
"Aha! But first they have to find us. What do you think the odds of that are?" Alexis Thorn adjusted the wide-brimmed straw hat over her dark hair. "Even if one of them gets lucky, we have sanctuary here on this mountaintop."
Nikki Quinn squirted coconut-scented lotion into her hand. "We're only granted sanctuary as long as we stay on top of this mountain. The moment we go down the mountain, we're fair game for anyone who thinks they're smart enough to take us down. Padre Messina will do his best to make sure that never happens, but mistakes happen from time to time. As we all know."
"It's such a small village, not even a thousand people," Isabelle Flanders said. "Any stranger will stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. According to Charles, most of the villagers are related to the padre. Annie, and her husband before her, have always taken care of them. She sends the older children off to university, she keeps the church going, buys new fishing boats for the residents. She makes sure all the houses are maintained, she sees to their health, pays the schoolteachers to teach the little ones. She even hired a constable, a third cousin of the padre. The people love her. They won't let anyone up this mountain. That fact you can take to the bank. Plus, the padre will ring the bell if a stranger appears in the village. There's no way a stranger or anyone can get up this mountain without help. I think we're as safe as we can be." Her voice turned ominous sounding when she said, "At least for now."
Former flower shop owner Yoko Akia looked around at her sisters. She was brown as a berry and almost as tiny. The others referred to her as a 90-pound stick of dynamite because of her martial arts expertise. "There are hundreds of electronic monitoring devices scattered around the mountain. I feel very safe here, safer than I felt back in the States. I have enjoyed being here so much, and so has Harry, my love. I think paradise must be like this," she said, waving her arms at the profusion of sweet-smelling flowers, the meadows of green grass, the umbrella-like trees and the pungent scent of pine from the forest that carried on the breeze from time to time. "We have everything here ... a tennis court, this pool, gardens, excellent food from those gardens and from the villagers. We will be learning new survival methods starting tomorrow. And"-she wagged one of her tiny fingers-"we will be expanding our minds, although I know I will never be able to speak German. It is too guttural sounding and my tongue will not work for the words."
The others laughed.
"Guess you aren't going to sleep, then," Kathryn said. "Charles is going to crack the whip." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Do any of you think there's a change in Charles?"
Isabelle whispered in return. "Of course there's a change in him. He's blaming himself because we got caught. Thank God he had the presence of mind to prepare this place for us ahead of time or we'd all be sitting in the slammer. Let's just say Yoko's mission was a bit out of the ordinary and let it go at that. We're here and we have to make the best of it. By the way, Annie has me designing a new schoolhouse for the village. When I'm finished, I'm going to design a small library."
Annie de Silva-who owned the monastery as well as the actual mountain-and her longtime friend Myra Rutledge climbed out of the pool. Both donned terry robes as they made their way across the terra-cotta patio that surrounded the Olympic-sized pool.
"Did I hear my name mentioned?" Annie asked as she towel-dried her hair.
"You did. We were talking about the villagers and all you do for them," Alexis said.
"I love helping them. They're like my family. I want you to believe me when I tell you those villagers will protect us with their lives. Are you girls homesick?"
As one, the young women said, "No!"
Myra sat down next to Nikki and reached for her lotion. "I'm so glad. Charles, Annie and I have been worried that you might want to go back and ... and face the music."
Always the most verbal of the group, Kathryn said, "Not in this lifetime. I do miss my truck at times. On the other hand, think about it, what's to miss? You're all here. I have Murphy," she said, patting the German Shepherd that was always at her side. "Plus, the eats are great!" Kathryn was a lover of all food; fine food, bad food, any kind of food.
"Where are the boys?" Myra asked.
"Playing with the catamaran," Nikki answered. "They wanted to check out the speedboats and the Jet Skis. Jack volunteered to keep everything in shape. He likes Fernando, the young guy in charge of the upkeep of all the watercraft. He'll be going off to university in Madrid in the fall, so Jack asked him to teach him about boats. He's loving the experience. Harry is ... what he's doing is outfitting the boats with a few special devices. They can hardly wait for those cigarette boats to be delivered." Nikki beamed as she peered over the top of her sunglasses.
Annie leaned back in her patio chair. "That was Charles's idea. He said a cigarette boat can outrun any boat except another cigarette boat. Drug runners use them all the time and the authorities never seem to catch them. Fernando is going to teach all of you how to operate the boats. He's a wonderful young man and he grew up on the water."
"So, girls, what's on your agenda for the rest of the day?" Myra asked.
Myra Rutledge, heiress to a Fortune 500 candy company, had formed the Sisterhood a few years ago, back in the States, with the help of her adopted daughter, Nikki Quinn, after her own daughter, Barbara, was killed by a drunken driver with diplomatic immunity.
Myra had thrown caution to the wind and enlisted Charles Martin's help in finding ways to help women who had fallen through the cracks of the justice system. Charles, an ex-MI6 operative in service to Her Majesty, the Queen of England, had gone to the United States to head up security for Myra's company many years ago.
In their youth, Myra, on a trip to England with her family, met and fell in love with Charles. But duty called and Charles went on assignment, and so Myra returned to the States ... carrying a baby in her womb. What with the world as uncertain as it was at the time, the lovers lost contact. Decades later Charles showed up at Myra's corporate offices in Virginia and they fell in love all over again.
Given his vast covert knowledge, his many contacts in the spy arena throughout the world and his political savvy, Charles was able to make the underground organization of the Sisterhood run like clockwork. Long ago, the sisters had ceased to question his methods, knowing only that if they followed his orders to the letter, things would work out the way he planned. Among themselves they continually said, "Charles can do anything." And they believed it.
Myra had once told them, in secrecy, that Charles often called a friend-in the middle of the night, stateside time, early-morning time in England-and referred to the person on the other end of the line as Lizzie. As in Queen Lizzie. That alone had been enough to convince the sisters that Charles was invincible.
They knew they were breaking the law but they didn't look at it that way. If justice wasn't served the first time around, then the second time around they served up the justice, Sisterhood-style. They'd done that seven times-seven missions, one for each of them, before the authorities closed in on them. Now they were fugitives from justice with a bounty on their heads. But, in the proverbial nick of time and with exquisite planning, Charles had whisked them away to this mountain hideaway in Spain where they were afforded sanctuary.
Now, Charles had a plan.
Tomorrow that plan would go into effect.
With two new additions to the Sisterhood: Jack Emery and Harry Wong.
Each man would bring his field of expertise to the table.
At least that's what everyone thought.
Chapter TwoWashington, DC Two days later
While the American Vigilantes of Pinewood, Virginia, began their new life in Spain, the assistant director of the FBI, who headed up an elite task force, called a special meeting to order.
The meeting was held in a room only a little bigger than a broom closet. It held an ugly metal table, one chair and the task force along with the AD, a tall man who dwarfed the room from the git-go. The five-member task force stood at attention, shoulder to shoulder. They all looked wary and jittery, even AD Mitch Riley. Riley was the personification of Hollywood's version of an FBI agent who had climbed the ranks to assistant director. He was muscular, extremely good-looking with summer blue eyes, and he was his dentist's poster boy. When he smiled, which was rare, deep dimples showed in his cheeks. It was a well-known fact that most of the employees at the Hoover Building referred to him behind his back as Dimples. No one was sure if he knew about the nickname or not. The consensus was that he did not. He was not loved, nor was he even liked by the people who worked with him. No one in his personal life liked him much, either. AD Mitch Riley was all about Mitch Riley and his desire to become the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Riley perched on the end of the ugly metal table and said, "Let's look alive here, people. You all know why you're here so let's get right to it. The Bureau has become a laughingstock this past month. That means I'm a laughingstock. I will not tolerate that. Each of you," he said deliberately, looking at each member, "was handpicked by the director for this special task force. For some reason he seems to think you have the chutzpah to bring those female vigilantes to justice. Me, now, I don't think you can do that, so your job is to prove me wrong. If you can't do it, your collective ass is out of here.
"For starters, I don't want to see any more demonstrations in front of this building. Get rid of those vigilante supporters. Get rid of those international camera crews. Arrest them if you have to. I want to see this crap relegated to page 42, not page 1 of every goddamn paper within a fifty-mile radius. Call in the heads of all those shitty women's groups and sweat them. I want the television coverage to stop. The media is glorifying those goddamn women. Let them see what a Come to Jesus meeting is all about. In short, do whatever the hell you have to do to put a cork in this mess. If I hear one more late-night talk show host bashing the Bureau for letting them get away, I'll personally fry all your asses. Last night they called us the Jackass Brigade, saying we couldn't find our own asses even if we had a searchlight and the best proctologist in the business was holding the flashlight. Do I have to tell any of you what the director thought of that little tidbit?
"Seven goddamn women took the law into their own hands and wreaked havoc on this fine institution. It has to stop. The only way it can stop is if you find all seven of them and bring them to justice. No one drops off the face of the Earth without leaving a clue. Are you listening to me? They're women, for Christ's sake. You're men! And one woman," he said as an afterthought. "Whatever you need, whatever you want, it's yours as long as you bring those women to justice. Warrants are yours for the asking. If you have any questions, ask them now."
"It would help if we had a file, a dossier on the women," one of the agents said. "Do you expect us to go out there blind and hope for the best? You indicated this is not a Mickey Mouse operation. We need to know who we're hunting, not the crap that's been published in the newspapers and what we've been seeing 24/7 on the tube."
Riley looked at his people again. He didn't like what he was seeing. They might be good agents, but they didn't have fire in their bellies. He truly believed that all of them, especially the female one, were secretly rooting for the vigilantes. Hell, even Alice, his own wife, was rooting for them, and so was his daughter. He couldn't believe it when his defiant wife told him she'd contributed a thousand dollars to the defense fund set up by the women's lawyers. Christ, his wife and daughter even had T-shirts that said GO, SISTERS, GO! Two days ago he'd waited until they were asleep, confiscated the shirts and burned them in the fireplace. The next day both Alice and Sally sported new ones. There was a war going on in the Riley household, but there was no need for anyone but him to know that. One way or another he'd make sure Alice toed the line. A shiver of something akin to fear skittered up his spine. She hated his guts. Maybe it was finally time to do something about that wife of his.
"In due time," he answered. "Right now I want you all to meet two people who know more than we do. Did you hear what I just said? There are two people out there in the hall who know more about those goddamn women than we do. We're the fucking FBI. We're supposed to know everything and we don't. I'm going to call them in here and I want you to listen to them. Then I want you to pick their brains."
Feet shuffled. Someone coughed. They all squirmed. Riley let them squirm. He managed to weave his way through his people and opened the door. He jerked his thumb in the direction of the small room.
Maggie Spritzer and Ted Robinson entered the room. Both reporters looked like they had just backpacked in the Appalachians for a month. Actually, what they'd been forced to do was hitchhike from Boise, Idaho, stopping at times to earn enough money washing dishes to pay for food. The Gold Shields-whose only loyalties were to the President of the United States and Charles Martin-had closed down the reporters' bank accounts, canceled their credit cards, confiscated their cell phones, their money and their identification, then drugged and dumped them after they had interfered in the Sisterhood's last caper in California where the infamous group of women had been captured.
Maggie and Ted smelled really bad and they knew it.
Mitch Riley introduced the two reporters. "Talk," he said.
They did, ending with the trek from Idaho to the present moment. It was Maggie who looked around and laughed in the agents' faces. "It's a joke, right? You can't possibly think you're going to catch those women. I don't care if you bring in the CIA and the rest of this crazy Alphabet City. They are untouchable, so get used to it. They have the most prestigious address in the world on their side: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, to be precise. You guys ... oops, you guys and one woman, are no match for those special Gold Shields. You know it, and we sure know it. You might think you're the best of the best but those women are the best of the best. They proved it. They got away right under your noses. The media is on their side. Hey, you might even have to shut down and turn everything over to the CIA."
Excerpted from Hide and Seek by FERN MICHAELS Copyright © 2007 by Fern Michaels. Excerpted by permission.
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